Defending the West Desert: Utah activist Jason Groenewold

  • Jason Groenewold

    Fred Hayes

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH — Utah’s West Desert is a tough place to love. The barren landscape, which stretches across tens of thousands of square miles along Utah’s border with Nevada, lacks the redrock spires and canyons that draw recreationists and sightseers to southern Utah. The occasional mountain range and salt flat are the only ripples in a treeless landscape that has mainly been used as a dumping ground: It is home to a bombing range, a chemical-weapons incinerator, a biological warfare proving ground, a low-level nuclear waste dump, and a proposal for a high-level nuclear waste storage facility.

For decades, Utahns largely ignored the desert, and the industrial and military buildup there. But that started to change about six years ago. Part of the credit goes to a 28-year-old Midwestern farm boy fresh from a private college in Minnesota, who had moved to Utah to be a ski bum. The articulate, unflappable and hardworking Jason Groenewold, now director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah), took on the state’s ultra-conservative establishment and, in the process, helped to raise Utahns’ awareness of the dangers facing them in the West Desert.

"This was the furthest thing I ever anticipated I’d be doing," says Groenewold, who lives in Salt Lake City, has a degree in finance and once planned on becoming a stockbroker.

Although Groenewold believes much of the West Desert is still relatively pristine, he isn’t trying to sell anyone on its charms. Instead, he has focused on the potentially dire human-health consequences of turning the West Desert into an industrial sacrifice zone.

Groenewold stepped onto the activist path in 1998, when he met Salt Lake resident Lisa Puchner, the co-founder of a fledgling Utah organization called Families Against Incinerator Risk (FAIR), which was fighting the Tooele Army Depot, where the U.S. Army is burning half the nation’s stockpile of chemical weapons. When Groenewold said he wanted to learn more, Puchner produced two manila folders full of reports, articles and lawsuits. Groenewold read the contents of the folders over a two-day hiking trip and was "floored," he says — especially when he learned that the plant’s own top managers had concerns about safety problems (HCN, 1/31/00: Incinerator unsafe, says former Tooele manager). "I just thought, I’m living here, and this can’t be going on in my backyard."

Soon, he was working with Chip Ward, FAIR’s other co-founder. In 2000, FAIR joined forces with three other watchdog groups to form HEAL Utah in order to focus on toxic emissions and nuclear waste dumping. The group now has an annual budget of $150,000, and 400 to 500 members.

Just five years ago, Ward remembers, he was meeting with no more than five people to "gnaw over" ways to get Utahns to care about toxic and nuclear waste. "It just seemed overwhelming," he recalls. "Now, polls show anywhere between 80 and 85 percent of people are against nuclear waste (storage in Utah). They understand the issues involved. And I think it’s largely Jason’s doing."

Ward says the turning point came in January 2001. The hazardous waste company Envirocare of Utah was seeking permission to dispose of nuclear waste hundreds, and even thousands, of times "hotter" than it was previously allowed to accept at its West Desert facility, 80 miles west of Salt Lake City. Besides fears over health and safety issues, opponents worried the plan would weaken efforts to block a second proposal to store spent nuclear fuel rods in the West Desert.

The state announced plans to hold a public hearing in Salt Lake City, and "Jason worked tirelessly that week, calling people to turn them out, briefing reporters, meeting with groups," says Ward.

Over 100 people spoke out against the proposal. The public dissent helped convince Envirocare to accept an agreement with the state’s political leadership that put the proposal on hold until 2005.

The packed hearing would be the first of a series of setbacks for Envirocare. The latest came last year, when the company proposed bringing in radioactive waste from an Ohio Superfund site. This time, Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop was trying to help the company by pushing legislation through Congress to reclassify the toxic waste as less dangerous (HCN, 10/14/02: Utahns could kill radioactive dump).

Groenewold — who is quick with the edgy sound bite — was the main voice of opposition in state’s media outlets. "Most congressmen want to bring home the pork to their districts. Bishop is bringing us radioactive bacon bits that glow in the dark," he told the Deseret Morning News in October. Driven partly by the public outcry, political and community leaders from the governor on down, along with four of the state’s five major newspapers, came out against the idea. By November, Envirocare had dropped the proposal.

"We weren’t solving Ohio’s problems," says Groenewold. "We were creating the next problem for Utahns."

And, he believes, they were ignoring the larger problem of how to solve the nuclear waste dilemma at the national level. "Simply allowing more (waste) to be created does not solve the problem. It would be like going on a diet by simply loosening your belt," he says. "We have to look this animal in the eye and ask, ‘What do we do?’ "

Groenewold certainly has his critics. At an Envirocare-sponsored rally in March, state Republican Sen. Curt Bramble, who co-chairs a legislative task force overseeing regulation of the company, told the audience that HEAL stands for "Help Educate Anal Liberals."

And despite the recent victories, Groenewold still has plenty of work to do. In April, HEAL Utah obtained an Army memo that shows managers at the Tooele chemical weapons incinerator still have concerns about safety. And early next year, Envirocare is expected to dust off the proposal to store super-hot nuclear waste. Groenewold believes the proposal will be a major campaign issue in the upcoming governor’s race, and he expects to be in the thick of it. "You can’t assume that someone else is going to step to the plate," he says. "You have to play a role."

The author writes from Salt Lake City, Utah.

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